Books

Books : reviews

George Lakoff, Mark Johnson.
Metaphors We Live By.
University of Chicago Press. 1980

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 5 January 1997

thesis: Metaphor is not just a poetical way of speaking that can be ignored or paraphrased away if we so wish; it is deeply embedded in our language, culture, and the way we think, and hence affects how we experience and interact with the world and other people.

The book is crammed with claimed metaphors and example short phrases to back up the claims (a tiny selection is reproduced at the end here). The metaphors range from the obvious (ARGUMENT IS WAR), to ones that are so deeply embedded in our thought processes that it takes a little longer to appreciate the existence of a metaphor at all (MORE IS UP; LESS IS DOWN). The very number of examples provided goes a long way to supporting the thesis.

The authors argue that these truly are metaphors, and not just homonyms (words that coincidentally sound the same, such as bank for the side of a river and a place to keep money). They show that we can extend conventional use of a metaphor, usually poetically --- He prefers massive Gothic theories covered with gargoyles. If the metaphor were merely a coincidental homonym, we would not be able to do this. Also, when we use two metaphors simultaneously, we do so in a coherent manner, rather than arbitrarily.

Many of our deepest metaphors are based on our physical interaction with our environment: up/down, in-out, back-front. But even so, some of these deep metaphors are different in different cultures:

p161. We project a front-back orientation in context onto objects that have no intrinsic fronts or backs. Given a medium-sized rock in our visual field and a ball between us and the rock, say a foot from it, we would perceive the ball as being in front of the rock. The Hausas make a different projection than we do and would understand the ball as being in back of the rock.

The first part of the book discusses metaphor in language; the second shows this has a profound impact on philosophy, which classically tends to ignore or downplay metaphor. A phrase like the fog bank is in front of the mountain can be understood only by assuming that

The latter part of the book is an explanation of why the new metaphorical experientialism is a better philosophy than either objectivism or subjectivism. Now we can realise that we are structuring our understanding by using just one of many possible metaphors, and maybe chose to use a different one (AN ARGUMENT IS A JOURNEY, rather than ARGUMENT IS WAR, say).

p232. Communication theories based on the CONDUIT metaphor turn from the pathetic to the evil when they are applied indiscriminately on a large scale, say, in government surveillance or computerized files. There, what is most crucial for real understanding is almost never included, and it is assumed that the words in the file have meaning in themselves --- disembodied, objective, understandable meaning. When a society lives by the CONDUIT metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products.

As well as detailed accounts of metaphor, there are some passing references to the way people carve up and classify the world: prototypical rather than hierarchical (robins and sparrows are prototypical birds, ostriches and penguins are not) and context-dependent (I may classify a bean-bag as a chair in some contexts but not in others). Lakoff goes into this more deeply in his fascinating later book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

A selection of metaphors

ARGUMENT IS WAR
He attacked my argument -- I've never won an argument
ARGUMENTS/THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS
The argument will fall apart -- We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments
AN ARGUMENT IS A JOURNEY
We have set out to prove... -- We have arrived at a disturbing conclusion
TIME IS MONEY
You're wasting my time -- He's living on borrowed time
TIME IS A MOVING OBJECT
The time for action has arrived -- Time flies
LOVE IS A JOURNEY
Look how far we've come -- We can't turn back now
LOVE IS MADNESS
He's gone mad over her -- I'm just wild about Harry
LOVE IS WAR
He is known for his conquests -- He won her hand -- She is besieged by suitors
LABOUR IS A RESOURCE
MORE IS UP; LESS IS DOWN
My income rose last year -- He is underage -- Turn the heating down
HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN

Mark Johnson.
The Body in the Mind: the bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason.
University of Chicago Press. 1987

George Lakoff, Mark Johnson.
Philosophy in the Flesh.
Basic Books. 1999

Mark Johnson.
Attribute-Value Logic and the Theory of Grammar.
CSLI. 1988